Cheese hits all the trends

Whether you want to build in low carbs, health benefits or ethnicity, cheese is a delicious formulation solution.

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By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

Cheese is a powerhouse of nutrients and an ingredient with rich functional and textural properties, yet it is added to foods largely to augment flavor. Interestingly, when cheese is added to foods, the textures, viscosity, creaminess or chewiness it adds often become established in the minds of consumers as the de facto standard of quality for those foods. The power of cheese!

Advances in ingredient separation and processing technologies have helped cheese manufacturers create some incredible functionalities tailored for specific product and process applications. These include the stringiness of mozzarella for pizzas, restricted melt, sharp flavor profiles and controlled browning.

Processors incorporate cheese-based ingredients to efficiently and cost-effectively enhance flavor, aroma and viscosity, and thereby the creaminess, mouthfeel, texture and appearance of a wide range of food products.

Cheese basics

In the U.S., most cheese is made from pasteurized milk. Pasteurization destroys disease-producing microbes and ensures food safety and provides greater uniformity of flavor and consistency. The process also inactivates enzymes inherent in milk and, therefore, some of their contribution to flavor.

NOTE TO PLANT OPS

Care should be taken when handling cheese-based ingredients. In general, temperatures should be maintained at the lower end of its tolerance range and processing configurations should be designed to minimize residence time at heated temperatures to prevent changes that are often irreversible and therefore costly.

Subjecting cheese to relatively high temperature or prolonged heating often causes the emulsification to break down resulting in fat and protein separation, the latter often denaturing irreversibly into a stringy, rubbery mess.

It is best to add cheese as the last ingredient when preparing sauces and to heat until only just melted. Curdling and grainy textures caused by overheating may sometimes be rectified by stirring or by the addition of small amounts of fat to bring the material together.

Care must be taken to maintain temperature and humidity with cheeses that have been diced, shredded or crumbled to hasten the melting process, because their increased surface area makes them particularly susceptible to the slightest fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and may result in clumping.

Some artisanal cheesemakers claim product made from non-pasteurized milk is more flavorful than its non-pasteurized counterpart. Government regulations require unpasteurized cheese to be aged for a minimum of 60 days, which satisfies the same safety requirements as pasteurization.

Food processors have long relied on aged Cheddar cheese, which, even in modest amounts, can help create powerfully appealing taste -- especially in low-fat formulations. The rich creamy taste that generations of Americans have come to love in their macaroni and cheese is now helping create low-calorie products for a nation that has just been advised to watch its fat and calorie consumption.

Which brings up form. Cheese can come in various-sized pieces or chunks, but also as cheese flavors, enzyme-modified cheese flavors, cheese sauces and powders.

A popular variety for cooking is process (or processed) or American cheese. It’s not aged but is an economical and practical way to add cheese flavor and other characteristics to many foods. American cheese is actually a blend of Cheddar, Colby and other cheeses.

“Advances in formulation technologies enable processors to utilize economical alternatives to traditional cheese ingredients, such as pasteurized process American or club Cheddar cheeses,” says Amy Loomis, Kraft Food Ingredients' senior business marketing manager of natural and process cheese. “Specialty pasteurized cheese products deliver flavor impact and functional characteristics associated with standard of identity cheeses. These ingredients contain real cheddar cheese as a primary component, yet offer increased price stability and the benefits of pasteurization.”

In the realm of sauces, Sargento Food Ingredients (www.sargentofoodingredients.com), Plymouth, Wis., offers a line of IQF (individually quick frozen) cheese sauces that include cooked, blended and formed matrices and shapes – sized to meet processors’ precise specifications. The IQF sauces thaw quickly and provide manufacturers with variety as well as convenience, and they may be custom produced to meet formulation needs.

Sargento's IQF sauces provide cheese in a form that is irresistably convenient.
Of the various cheese-based ingredients, cheddar cheese is by far the most popular flavor in North America and has been employed to augment the profile of a wide range of food products including sauces, dips, dressing, savory snacks, soups and even bakery products. If created well, high-flavor cheese powders can greatly enhance the taste of otherwise bland products without the need for additional fat or seasonings.

DairiConcepts L.P., Springfield, Mo., expects greater demand in the coming months for its high-flavor cheese powder -- Supernatural Cheddar -- for more vegetable-based and low-calorie entrees. The ingredient is manufactured from natural cheddar cheese with the latest technology for pronounced flavor and less fat than its traditional counterpart.

Cheddar Shake from Cabot Creamery (www.cabotcheese.com), Montpelier, Vt., has brought life back to many flavorless meals and can entice even finicky eaters to eat their vegetables. Because it is sparingly used, it’s a boon to dieters. A mere dusting of this naturally white cheddar powder adds pizzaz to vegetables, popcorn, potatoes or macaroni and adds only 25 calories per serving and 1.5 g of fat, 5 mg cholesterol and 210 mg of sodium.

One of the fun aspects of cheese is its melting characteristics. Melting depends on a number of factors including its composition, pH, degree of casein hydrolysis and the mode of heating -- i.e., thermal heating, direct or indirect, and microwave heating.

The constituents, especially fat and protein levels, strongly affect how the cheese responds to thermal heating. Aging further affects this property; older cheeses tend to be more stable. Cheese pH and extent of casein hydrolysis affects how the cheese responds to microwave heating.

Cheese elasticity depends on the pH and the extent of casein hydrolysis and subsequent dissociation. Calcium phosphate is generally added to cement the casein micelle and create the appropriate level of cohesion and elasticity. For pizza manufacturers, this means paying attention to the pH of the sauce and the extent of freeze thaw cycles the product is subjected to.

Processing characteristics

The cooking quality of cheese is generally improved by high moisture and fat content, the addition of emulsifiers and extended aging.

Aged or ripened, hard cheeses such as Parmesan, Romano and Asiago have pronounced flavor, contain about 33 percent moisture and are suitable for shredding and grating. Soft cheeses such as ricotta and mascarpone have high moisture content and blend readily with ingredients such as eggs and milk and are ideal for fluid preparations such as sauces and soups.

Low-fat cheeses do not usually melt or blend as well as their higher-fat counterparts and often require the addition of emulsifiers for desirable processing characteristics.

The consistency of cheese and its moisture content govern its texture and mouthfeel characteristics. The higher the moisture content, the more spreadable the cheese tends to be. Higher fat levels help achieve smoother and creamier textures, enable smooth melting in the mouth and contribute to lubricity and the perception of richness.

Cheese is an interesting ingredient in that the solid form, when melted or stressed, can give rise to a wide range of viscosities and rheological properties - from creamy to runny, thick to thin, and crumbly to stringy. Heating cheese causes its fat component, generally solid at ambient temperatures, and its entrapped or emulsified moisture to liquefy and interact to create the range of properties we have come to expect from it.

Cheese suppliers have taken advantage of this property to tailor cheese-based ingredients for processors to suit the various processing conditions in the manufacturing plant.

Applications

Bakery: In breads and bakery products cheese-based ingredients have been employed effectively to create flavor and texture in artisanal breads, to enhance flavor in cheesecake, and as a means to add flavor and texture to breakfast and dessert foods.

Even the venerable Pillsbury Bake-Off is working in some cheese. Minneapolis-based General Mills, Inc. (www.generalmills.com) this year partnered with the American Dairy Assn. to feature four awards in the cheese category -- a first in the 50-year history of the contest.

Salad Dressings: In salad dressing, where the fat-free segment continues to lead category sales, high-flavored cheeses such as gorgonzola and blue cheese help manufacturers create taste and texture without adding to the caloric content. Cottage cheese has proven to be excellent as a base in cream-style salad dressings and to help maintain the desired cream-style texture and dairy notes without the caloric burden of cream. Increasing popularity of ethnic and regional cuisines has helped boost Asiago and Romano as tasty replacements of the traditional Parmesan.

Soups and Sauces: Cottage cheese serves as a base in low-fat, cream-style sauces and soups. It maintains the desired cream-style texture while also contributing dairy notes and fewer calories.

Ripe with opportunity

The time is ripe for cheese producers. Cheese hits on a number of trends and has some powerful health benefits going for it.

Sales of Hispanic-style cheeses have paralleled the explosion of the U.S. Hispanic population. Latin American cheeses such as queso blanco, cotija, and chihuahua, while lacking the complexity and distinct flavor characteristics of European cheeses, are essential ingredients for authentic cuisines. These cheeses and flavors are not just enjoyed by Hispanics, of course.

Quality varies widely in cheese ingredients

Absence of standards of identity for cheese-based ingredients such as cheese powder has resulted in a wide range of quality among cheese-based ingredients. Suppliers may opt to make their ingredient from the high quality premium raw material or from cheese that is out of specification or past its shelf life -- known in the industry as "opportunity cheese."

The key to success for formulators using cheese to create food products is to first develop a reference standard using the real cheese and to then re-create the desired characteristics of the cheese in the final product.

Product developers working with cheese and cheese powders should consider the ingredient primarily as a flavor ingredient instead of considering it as the "core ingredient" of the formulation. After determining that the cheese or cheese powder is indeed compatible with the processing parameters and any other restrictions or requirements - such as kosher, natural, low-fat or low-carb - formulators should next examine the cost implications on the final product.

It goes without saying that prior to all of this, the formulator should determine how the cheese powder will be used in the food product, how the manufacturing process will affect the physical and flavor attributes of the cheese under consideration and if the flavor will withstand the rigors of preparation, distribution, storage and consumer preparation and still deliver what the product promises.

To non-Hispanics or people not familiar with these cheeses, they seem bland or exceedingly salty until consumers realize that cheeses such as queso fresco are designed to counterbalance spiciness rather than to introduce another flavor. Savvy marketers like General Mills are adding blends of cheeses to enhance the "authenticity perception" of their foods and engaging evocative descriptions and creative signage to lure and further educate customers.

Cheese is convenient. Consumer expectations grow for preparation ease, greater portability, convenience and ease in cleaning up. And cheese responds to all these demands.

Cheese consumption through foodservice has grown such that 43 percent of all cheese sales are through foodservice. Retail consumption is also on the rise, as is cheese going into food processing - i.e., into frozen entrees and sauces.

Many cheeses are organic and natural. Early this year, Kraft Foods (www.kraft.com), Glenview, Ill., recognized the growing influence of health and wellness on consumption and buying behaviors and responded with USDA certified-organic cheeses. Cream cheese, Neufchatel, Cheddar cubes, American slices, low-fat white Cheddar slices, Cheddar shreds and mozzarella shreds debuted under Kraft’s Back to Nature brand, a brand previously limited to breakfast cereal and macaroni and cheese with organic cheese sauce.

Once thought of simply as a high-fat food, cheese in recent years has won a number of accolades for healthy attributes.

The calcium in cheese and other dairy products long has been associated with bone health. Now, several scientific studies, on both rats and humans, have shown a link between dairy consumption and weight loss.

Most of these studies were funded by the dairy industry, however, and there is little independent research on this topic. The medical journal Obesity Research published the findings of a study funded by the National Dairy Council at the University of Tennessee. Of 32 obese adults who cut 500 calories from their daily diet for six months, those who consumed more dairy products lost an average of 11 percent of their body weight, compared with 2.5 percent loss of those who consumed lower amounts of dairy foods.

Check-off promotion program Dairy Management Inc. (www.dairyinfo.com) is reinforcing this "structure/function claims" for dairy and weight management, and the International Dairy Foods Assn. is overseeing the proper use of this dairy-weight loss claim. "Dairy is part of the solution to the nation's obesity crisis," claims Doug DiRienzo, vice president of nutrition research at DMI.

The mechanism for how cheese might help with weight management is unclear. In general, dairy products might contribute to greater satiety than other foods, helping dieters be less hungry and therefore, more likely to adhere to their diets. The calcium in cheese is believed to suppress certain hormones and enhance the breakdown of fat in the body. Increasing calcium may reduce levels of another enzyme that is responsible for the accumulation of fat around the abdomen - thus leading to the smaller waistlines touted in the dairy advertisements.

Sometimes, dieting is a matter of portion control. Cabot Creamery created new packaging in part to help address the rising incidence of obesity and Type-2 diabetes. A graph with 1-oz. increments set along the side of Cabot's reduced-fat cheddar cheese bars allows consumers to more accurately gauge how much they’re consuming. “We got many requests for this innovation especially from Weight Watchers members,” said Sara Wing, health programs manager at Cabot.

Cheese in general and one brand in particular got quite a boost from a certain low-carb diet. The South Beach Diet book casually mentioned the "Laughing Cow/Mini Babybel" tiny cheese wheels (3/4-oz. each) as a great portion-controlled, "one-gram carb" snack to help dieters maintain their regimen. Becky Ryan, director of marketing at Bel/Kaukauna USA (www.thelaughingcow.com), Kaukauna, Wis., reports that sales of the mini rounds of cheese more than doubled since last year and, more importantly, consumers continue to eat it even after they get off the low-carb diet.

Researcher Syed Rizvi of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who has been involved in several cheese innovations, currently is excited about the ability to capture milk proteins that emerging research has shown to be beneficial for weight management and also for the regulation of food intake, hypertension and muscle metabolism. Rizvi's microfiltration process enables pure milk proteins, once elusive and exorbitant, to be a viable healthful ingredient in nutraceutical applications and valuable condition-specific foods.

Fortification

Historically, the dairy industry has shied away from fortification, lest consumers get the impression that milk and other dairy products require the addition of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to be nutritious. But there is some experimentation under way that could make cheese and even healthier food.

Marc Beck, vice president of marketing at the U.S. Dairy Export Council (www.usdec.org), Arlington, Va., says dairy scientists are working on such innovations as nutraceutical cheeses, with enhanced probiotic content, healthful inulin, extra calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. They should be able to make pediatric and digestive health claims.

Orange juice, margarine, and soymilk marketers have done a good job educating consumers on the health benefits of phytosterols, natural plant-derived compounds that structurally are analogs of cholesterol and consequently compete with ingested cholesterol for absorption through the small intestine. Now these compounds are being added to cheese.

Dairy marketer Lifeline Food Co., Seaside, Calif., was the first and is still the only dairy producer to offer phytosterols in cheese called Lifetime Low Fat Cheeses. A single 1-oz. serving of the Cheddar, Extra Sharp Cheddar, Jalapeno Jack and Mozzarella contains 0.65 g phytosterols -- the recommended amount for the cholesterol-lowering benefit.

"We could not have more than 1 g of saturated fat in order to make the 'reducing cholesterol' claim," explains Lifeline President Joan Chappell. "Serendipitously, we discovered that phytosterols act as fat mimetics -- so, the phytosterol cheeses taste creamier than the regular low-fat product."

Carl Brothersen, Utah State University researcher and associate director of the Western Dairy Center, applies high-pressure injection technology to create vitamin-fortified cheese that taste like regular cheese. The technology allows for delivering valuable nutrients such as vitamins D, B6 and folic acid affordably and with enhanced appeal to a wide range of consumers without affecting the ripening process or flavor of the cheeses.

Austrian cheese maker Kasemacher (www.austrade.com) recently rolled out cow and sheep's milk cheeses with pumpkin seed and poppy seed. Pumpkin seed cheese is gaining popularity in Whole Foods Market stores for its positive link with prostate health benefits and adds an unexpected flavor and texture to this creamy-textured cheese.

The cheese market

The overall cheese category grew 3.4 percent by volume for the 52 weeks ending March 28, according to ACNielsen (www.acnielsen.com), Schaumburg, Ill. Natural cheese, which has the largest market share, increased 7.2 percent and drove category growth while processed cheese actually lost ground with a volume decrease of 2.6 percent.

Both 2003 and 2004 were good years for most of the top brands of natural cheese, as well as private label cheeses. Hispanic cheeses mirrored the U.S. Latin population, historically major consumers of cheese, and accounted for strong growth in the specialty cheese sector.

Recent data from USDA's Economic Research Service indicates per capita consumption of natural cheese has grown by almost 2 percent annually since 2001. Much of the growth, especially in the past year, is attributed to low carb consumers, who select natural cheese along with cream and butter for their naturally low carbohydrate attributes. As Kraft Foods says in a recent cheese advertisement: "If you can count to one you can count our carbs."

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